This is a rare type of post for me. I think that, sometimes, predictions of a species’ demise are exaggerated. Why is extinction always (reflexively?) ascribed to humans when natural forces often play the most important role? But what is happening to the elephant is personal for me. A little over a year ago I spent 3 months in southern Africa. I saw plenty of elephants, and observed their behavior sometimes for hours at a time. Elephants once roamed across Africa, but now they are largely limited to a few sanctuaries: the national parks.
But even in the parks elephants are under constant attack. They have always been poached of course, but recently the slaughter has increased in intensity. There are several factors at work here. The most important is the increasing price for ivory in SE Asia. For example, the Philippines is a big consumer of ivory where it is shaped into religious icons. Talk about a sad irony! The unusually hard ivory of the forest elephant of western Africa is particularly prized.
Now since these parks are poorly patrolled, and because they aren’t very far from hotbeds of Islamic extremism such as Mali, the slaughter is on a massive scale. Parties of men, equipped with high-powered weapons and often flown in by helicopter, have been recently wiping out whole herds: mothers with their babies included. I can’t bring myself to post pictures of the dead elephants; it’s just too upsetting. You can easily find them on the web.
It’s all done for money of course. The sight of these butchered elephants hits most people like a punch in the gut. At this pace, we will lose the forest elephant very soon. The larger African elephants of eastern and southern Africa are also being poached in record numbers. Complicating all this is that countries like Kenya are hoarding their ivory, collected from legal culling operations. That just drives up the price of course. Even parks like Kruger in South Africa are losing elephants (and rhinos). I visited this park and was very impressed by the high, electrified fence encircling the huge park. But this doesn’t stop poachers.
Given the amount of corruption in Africa, I believe that ivory smuggling is very difficult to stop. I also believe that convincing people to stop buying ivory, while very worthwhile, will never make a difference in time to save the species. I believe strongly that a two-pronged approach is necessary. First, attempt to lower the price by forcing Kenya and other countries with abundant localized populations in their parks to continue culling the herds and releasing that ivory on the market. The second step, which is most important, is to use high tech weaponry to kill every single poacher in these teams.
We should use armed drones (which are being brought home as the U.S. gets out of their ill-thought-out conflicts) to go after these criminals. After a time, and in conjunction with satellite surveillance, we should be able to get them before they do their dirty business. We should get them coming out if we fail to get them going in. I think, despite the potential of a big payout, that knowing they have a better than even chance of dying during the attempt will keep potential poachers from signing up.
It’s important to kill every single person involved in a poaching attempt. If we approach this like we approached the war in Iraq, we should be able to make these better than even odds a reality. I strongly believe that funding for this should come from the U.S. and Britain, along with a few other countries, big donors and even NGOs. Money from western governments should come directly out of the aid budget for Africa (so it does not add to the deficit).
I have seen firsthand how intelligent, how caring, and how incredibly awesome these creatures are. I really want to help save elephants, as well as rhinos. If I can make that happen, you will see me blogging from Africa in the future. I do not want to see these magnificent beings disappear forever. I really don’t.